Four Confederate battle flags were found on Thursday on the grounds of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, the historic Atlanta church where Martin Luther King Jr. was baptized and later became co-pastor.
One flag lay below a banner that read “Black Lives Matter, Hands Up,” the slogan that has come to characterize the movement of civil rights supporters who say police treat blacks unfairly.
Church officials were distraught Thursday. "This is the same as placing a swastika on the campus of a Jewish temple," Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church said at a press conference. "Whatever the message was, clearly it is not about heritage, but about hate."
The flag is viewed as an emblem of Southern pride for some and a legacy of slavery and racial segregation for others.
“This breaks my heart. It’s just taking the flag to another level," Tracey Jackson, an Atlanta resident who lives near the historic church, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "That flag represents what happened in the past. And too many people are holding on to that past. It just hurts.”
A custodian discovered the small flags spread out on the ground outside the Ebenezer Baptist Church early Thursday morning.
"Our grounds men were so upset, they took pictures and then they moved them," Shanan Jones, the church's executive pastor, told the Associated Press.
Authorities are searching for two white males who were captured on church security cameras as they placed the flags on the premises overnight.
The incident comes a little more than a month after a gunman killed nine black parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. Images of Dylann Roof, a self-described white supremacist who has been charged with the massacre, brandishing the Confederate battle flag in online photos prompted the removal of the flag from the grounds of the South Carolina State House and extensive soul-searching the flag's connotations across the United States.
Reverend Warnock called the recent placement of the flags at his church a “terrorist” act meant to intimidate, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
Atlanta Police Chief George Turner didn’t deny the possibility. He also would not rule out a connection with the Charleston shooting.
Confederate flags have been placed at the nearby Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change before.
"It was disturbing and sickening, but unfortunately not terribly surprising," Warnock said of the latest incident. "We've seen this kind of ugliness before."
This report includes material from Reuters and the Associated Press.